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2022 NCAA Tournament Preview: East Region - Baylor tries to defend its crown

Kentucky will try to knock off the defending national champions.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Kentucky vs Vanderbilt Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma Sooners may have missed out on the 2022 NCAA Tournament, but that’s not going to stop us from breaking down the big dance in excruciatingly minute detail. We’re previewing every region before the games tip off in earnest on Thursday.

Here’s a look at the East Region, where the defending national champions earned the top seed.

2022 NCAA Tournament - East Region Preview

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Tennessee vs Kentucky Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The favorite: Kentucky

The tournament selection committee may have preferred Baylor’s body of work, but Vegas likes the Wildcats over the top-seeded Bears. BetMGM lists UK at +850 to win the whole thing, while the Bears are at +1200.

The oddsmakers have this one right because there is a lot to like about coach John Calipari’s team in 2022. Chief among them: power forward Oscar Tshiebwe, a preternatural rebounder and possibly the national player of the year. A wealth of talent and experience surround the West Virginia transfer, including guards TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler.

A horrific shooting performance versus Tennessee in a loss in the SEC Tournament offered a glimpse of what the Wildcats might look like on a bad day. It wasn’t bad enough to say they should take a back seat to any other team in this region.

Best matchup: No. 10 San Francisco vs. No. 7 Murray State

NCAA Basketball: Belmont at Murray State Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

If winning is a skill, the Racers have it in abundance. Murray State (30-2) has notched 20 straight victories dating back to December.

Despite playing in the West Coast Conference’s shadow of Gonzaga, the Dons put together a solid campaign of their own. USF’s 24-9 record may not look as pretty, but kenpom.com ranks the team 21st overall. That’s six spots ahead of Murray State, for the record.

To keep their winning streak alive, the Racers will need to penetrate the Dons’ suffocating defense, which ranks 19th in adjusted efficiency. Both teams defend the three-point line particularly well, so the outcome will probably come down to the team that shows the better ability to get to the rim.

Upset alert: No. 11 Virginia Tech over No. 6 Texas

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Longhorns are laying a point, so this counts.

The Hokies caught fire down the stretch as they won 13 of their final 15 games. That stretch culminated in an 82-67 beatdown of Duke in the ACC Tournament final that wasn’t even as close as the score would indicate.

Tech coach Mike White doesn’t have the notoriety of Texas’ Chris Beard, but the Hokies play brilliant, methodical ball on offense. Beard could spend countless hours up until tipoff drawing up defensive schemes to stop White’s offensive sets, and it still might not be enough.

UT’s size might carry the Longhorns past Tech, but the bet here is Tech’s hot shooting sends the Hokies to the second round.

Dark horse: Saint Mary’s

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary’s at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Gaels play a tournament-friendly style of basketball. They slow the tempo to a crawl and probe opposing defenses to set up good shots. On defense, they guard the three-point line hard enough so that opponents generate only 26% of their scoring against Saint Mary’s from behind the arc, one of the lowest rates in the country.

All in all, the discipline required to beat Randy Bennett’s team is a tall order for most of the Gaels’ opponents. Don’t be shocked if Saint Mary’s ends up playing for a spot in the Final Four.

Sweet 16: No. 1 Baylor over No. 5 Saint Mary’s; No. 2 Kentucky over No. 3 Purdue

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Not many surprises here. The Gaels throw enough funky stuff at UCLA’s isolation-heavy offense in round two to score an upset. The Bears have too much firepower, however, and the defending champs advance to the Elite 8.

Purdue will probably struggle in one of its first two games because that’s what the Boilermakers do. They will also put a scare into Kentucky in the Sweet 16 because that’s what they do. The Wildcats will survive the shootout and move on.

Elite 8: Kentucky over Baylor

This has classic potential, as we’re talking about two of the four best teams in the sport this season. So what gives UK the edge? Both of these squads hit the offensive boards hard, but the Wildcats are slightly better when it comes to limiting those second-chance opportunities. Also, the Bears’ spotty shooting from the free-throw line provides cause for concern in tight games.

The Bears will have to console themselves with last season’s national title. Somehow Scott Drew will manage.